Science Versus Sunshine: How vitamin D is made in a laboratory.
Rickets was a disease which died out with the Victorian era, or so we thought, but a ‘Food Unwrapped‘ documentary screened by BBC Channel 4 reveals the disturbing truth — that it has made a come-back. The programme presenter, Jimmy Doherty, is on a mission to discover how a vitamin, normally created by the synergy of sunshine on skin, can be produced by chemists in a laboratory.
We are told that the Department of Health has released the astonishing statistic that a quarter of people in the UK have low levels of Vitamin D. They stress that children are especially at risk and recommend that this vitamin is routinely taken in supplement form.
During an interview with Dr Benjamin Jacobs, a paediatrician from the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, we are shown a video of a child currently being treated for Vitamin D-deficiency rickets. Three-year-old Hamsa Khan’s parents had no idea that a lack of Vitamin D could have such a devastating effect on their child.
A year later, following an intensive course of laboratory-produced Vitamin D, Hamsa’s bones are strengthening and the leg curvature is reducing. Dr Jacobs confirmed that continued treatment should completely cure him.
Natural Sources of Vitamin D
During the interview with Dr Jacobs, we learn that Vitamin D does also occur naturally in a few foods such as oily fish, mushrooms and egg yolk. It is also added to various everyday grocery items, but unfortunately, the amounts of Vitamin D in foods are quite small, so a combination of sunlight and supplement is necessary.
Our body produces its own Vitamin D with help from the sun. When UVB rays penetrate the skin, they cause a chemical reaction that converts fatty acids into Vitamin D. It is vitamin D which enables the body to absorb calcium from food.
But there is a dilemma because doctors have strongly advised us to cover up or use high-factor sun cream to protect ourselves from melanoma, and this is vitally important, but shielding our skin from the rays of the sun also blocks our Vitamin D supply.
Said Dr Jacobs: ‘As doctors, we’ve campaigned to avoid sunshine to prevent skin cancer. But we should add to the message, take Vitamin D in some other ways, and take a supplement to fortify your food. We shouldn’t be seeing children with rickets due to a lack of Vitamin D in this day and age.’
The Search for Man-Made Vitamin D
So where does the manufactured version of Vitamin D come from? What is it that food producers are actually adding to such things as breakfast cereals and yogurt drinks to boost our levels of this essential vitamin? The documentary research team posed this question, via the customer-care phone lines, to some of the manufacturers in question. The replies ranged from confused to downright incorrect, so even companies using Vitamin D as an additive, have no idea of its derivation.
Because it’s impossible to bottle sunlight, we may assume that food producers must be using Vitamin D from sources which naturally contain small amounts of the vitamin. Oily fish for instance, or egg yolk perhaps? Even mushrooms contain small amounts of vitamin D. But how can these trace amounts be isolated and extracted from natural foods? And even if they are, can they really be used as additives by food manufacturers and supplement companies?
The answer is no — they can’t.
Jimmy set off to visit Cannon Hall Farm in South Yorkshire, which apparently held the answer to the mystery. He may have been expecting to find a trout farm, a chicken farm, or perhaps even a mushroom growing business. But upon his arrival what he found instead were five hundred peacefully-grazing sheep.
Upon meeting the farmer, he asked the million-dollar question — from what part of a sheep is Vitamin D obtained? The answer was most unexpected. Vitamin D, he was told, comes from the wool, or to be more precise, from the grease or lanoline which waterproofs the sheep’s fleece.
So how is lanoline removed from the sheep’s wool? Firstly, the sheep are sheared. The wool is then baled and sent to a processing plant.
We follow the fleeces on their journey; a plant where 25,000 tons of sheep’s wool is treated every year.
The fleeces are cleansed by agitating them in huge vats of water and detergent.
The water is then drained away into centrifuges which spin at high speed to separate oil/grease from water. The clean wool can then be used for making carpets and clothing, and the extracted grease/lanolin is bottled and sold on to the refiners.
The next destination for the now bottled substance is a refinery in the Netherlands where it is purified, refined, then even further refined and crystallised before reaching the laboratory phase. At this stage, the substance looks rather like sugar but is in fact a very fine, divided-crystal compound.
Next comes the most important part of the process; converting that crystal compound into Vitamin D. This is done by means of a machine with a lamp which replicates the rays of the sun.
Intensely strong ultra-violet light particles bombard the compound, causing a chemical reaction which converts the substance to Vitamin D.
The window allows chemists to see into the machine is screened with red to prevent the brilliant white light from blinding anyone looking at it. Tiny light particles called photons bombard the crystal compound causing a chemical reaction that creates Vitamin D. The process mimics what normally happens within the skin when it’s exposed to the sun’s rays.
The process takes four hours, and then the solution is filtered before being refrigerated to allow crystallisation.
The substance is then in a form which may be used as medicine, vitamin D supplement and food additives.
At the end of the process, manufactured Vitamin D is a highly expensive commodity. One bottle is worth about £250,000!
Each tiny vial contains just half a gram, yet this is twice as much as Hamsa would need in his lifetime.
Finally, Jimmy highlighted the rather wonderful fact that from something as unexpected as sheep’s wool comes the wherewithal to cure a little boy of a dreadful disease.
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